Jack and Mary and Fred and Portland: The American Magic of Vaudeville

 

I’ll admit right out of the gate that I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, something that can probably be blamed on not having seen home since January, and having been in lockdown alone since March. Things may have occasionally come to the ‘rocking out to metal songs sung by Christopher Lee about Charlemagne at 11 pm while washing dishes in llama pajamas’ point of solitary living. Maybe. Either way, when I’m not working or doing something useful, I find myself more and more seeking out the comfortingly old fashioned. It should be acknowledged that most of the cultural products I associate with nostalgia aren’t ‘personally nostalgic’ for me, in the sense that I had or have a contemporary connection (only post-1999 things could be such). One of the biggest parts of this recent obsession has been old radio comedians, mostly Jack Benny and Fred Allen.

Readers of a certain age will probably have at least some memory of Benny, who dominated radio and television from the ‘30s almost until his death in 1974. My mother absolutely and completely despises him, and threatens homicide if I listen to his ‘40s broadcasts in the car, so he played no great role in my early life. Allen, meanwhile, is a largely forgotten figure, mentioned, if at all, as a “comedian’s comedian” and witty satirist who failed to make the transition to television, a contrast to his arch-nemesis. I could, I think rightfully, laud their comedy chops, their innovativeness, and their lasting impact on American popular culture. These certainly all deserve praise, but what has struck me most in listening to and watching their performances in the last few weeks is who they were and who they became. 

Jack Benny was in fact Benjamin Kubelsky, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrant business owners in the suburbs of Chicago. Allen, meanwhile, was really John F. Sullivan, a Massachusetts-born son of Irish Catholic parents who came of age in a deeply dysfunctional and shattered family, something George Burns identified as a common denominator among his generation of comedians (he noted his best friend, Benny, as a rare exception to this pattern). Both men, then, came from groups that were often regarded with hostility in more than one quarter, and Allen suffered the additional handicap of poverty and early experiences with family tragedy. By all rights, they should have expected modest success in life at best, but Vaudeville put them on an entirely new path. 

By the time that Benny and Allen entered the Vaudeville circuit (roughly the same time, sharing a birth year), it was well established and well known. Neither man began as a comedian, the Waukegan native was initially one half of a serious piano and violin act, while his counterpart from Cambridge was a monologist who juggled. Through a series of act changes and nearly endless movement around the country, both began careers on radio, and became enduringly successful in that medium. Vaudeville was the perfect stepping stone, a way for people to come into contact with living difference, as well as enjoy live entertainment. And it forced a two-way method of assimilation. The performers, many of whom hailed from immigrant or minority religious roots, had to shape their performances to the tastes of their audiences, while the same audiences came face to face with the very human (and talented) members of groups which they may have despised. For others, seeing these entertainers may have been the first time they saw people of their background in positions of prominence, or gaining widespread acceptance and fame. 

Of course, Vaudeville was far from perfect. Racism was rampant, and minority (especially black) performers often found themselves paid less than their white colleagues, denied lodging or the chance to bring their acts to the best venues, and made the butt of harmful stereotypes. Benny and Allen’s use of stereotypes shows just how conscious both men were of the line between the humorous and the pernicious, undoubtedly influenced in some part by their own experiences with discrimination. Allen’s Alley was a popular part of the comedian’s radio program, populated by a cast of caricatured men and women (heavily accented Jewish housewife Mrs. Nussbaum, bellicose Southern senator Beauregard Claghorn, and stoic Northern farmer Titus Moody among others), but “the warmth and good humor with which they were presented made them acceptable even to the most sensitive listeners.” 

Rochester, Benny’s famously gravel-voiced valet, was never subservient and often outsmarted his vain and penny-pinching boss but as the ‘40s wore on, Benny insisted on dropping the more offensive stereotypical parts of the character’s makeup (his womanizing, frequent drunkenness, gambling, etc). When a skit in one radio broadcast involved Rochester punching his employer at his behest, and a plethora of Southern stations cut off the show for the offense to the white race, Benny labeled the complaint absurd and refused to apologize. His own character (for the Jack Benny of sound and screen in very few ways represented the real man) did not rely on common negative perceptions of Jewish thrift, but was consciously all-American and areligious. 

We rightfully celebrate civil rights leaders, educational campaigners, and activists of all stripes for their efforts to bring more equal opportunity to the American experience, but I think that Vaudeville and a lot of its progeny deserve a share of the glory too. (And we as conservatives can, of course, appreciate that this sprang out of a non-governmental, capitalist enterprise). Often without intending to, they conveyed to everyday Americans that differences in race, religion, and tradition, within a solid civic framework, were not going to produce the ‘downfall of the white race’ or anarchy, but brought much-needed vitality, diversity, and humor to their country. Fred Allen was an open, devout Catholic, unashamed of his beliefs, and thus showed the skeptical that “paptists” could also be pretty great comedians and relatable people (something I, as a Massachusetts-born Catholic, am grateful for). His boxing partner Benny, meanwhile, was an example for the children of all immigrants of the promise of America, that hardwork and dedication really could make good. What better, and more enjoyable, expression of the American ideal is there than that? 

*If you’re looking for a place to start, this appearance of Allen on Benny’s television show is great fun.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KirkianWanderer: Allen, meanwhile, is a largely forgotten figure, mentioned, if at all, as a “comedian’s comedian” and witty satirist who failed to make the transition to television

    Not so sure I would agree to this.

    He was a sometime panelist on this show (after and before Steve Allen), and it was great fun.

    • #1
  2. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: Allen, meanwhile, is a largely forgotten figure, mentioned, if at all, as a “comedian’s comedian” and witty satirist who failed to make the transition to television

    Not so sure I would agree to this.

    He was a sometime panelist on this show, and it was great fun.

    He was wonderful on What’s My Line, but there were a couple of failed tv shows before it, and he also had huge trouble because he refused to move from NYC to California and suffered stage fright (a dangerous combination with his heart problem) in front of cameras. Unfortunately, he was also only on the show for two years, interrupted by a spell of ill health, before his death from a heart attack in 1956. I think he may eventually have found his niche, but circumstances and his premature end prevented it.

    • #2
  3. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: Allen, meanwhile, is a largely forgotten figure, mentioned, if at all, as a “comedian’s comedian” and witty satirist who failed to make the transition to television

    Not so sure I would agree to this.

    He was a sometime panelist on this show, and it was great fun.

    He was wonderful on What’s My Line, but there were a couple of failed tv shows before it, and he also had huge trouble because he he refused to move from NYC to California and suffered stage fright (a dangerous combination with his heart problem) in front of cameras. Unfortunately, he was also only on the show for two years, interrupted by a spell of ill health, before his death from a heart attack in 1956. I think he may eventually have found his niche, but circumstances and his premature end prevented it.

    Perhaps it would be better to say “failed to make the transition into television” with anything approaching the success of Benny or Burns.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Benny and Allen were brilliant. Their “feud” was hilarious. This next part is my favorite, Allen’s last show of the 1946 season.

    • #4
  5. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    Benny and Allen were brilliant. Their “feud” was hilarious. This next part is my favorite, Allen’s last show of the 1946 season.

    I really wish I could find footage of their boxing match, everyone who saw it said that it was just about the worst you could imagine. Their feud is all the better, in my opinion, because they were actually close friends and conspired to make it funny.

    • #5
  6. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    I started watching Benny’s TV show on You Tube. The Christmas episode in the department store that ends with a gunshot is a stunner.

    • #6
  7. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Benny and Allen were brilliant. Their “feud” was hilarious. This next part is my favorite, Allen’s last show of the 1946 season.

    I really wish I could find footage of their boxing match, everyone who saw it said that it was just about the worst you could imagine. Their feud is all the better, in my opinion, because they were actually close friends and conspired to make it funny.

    Benny’s description of Allen in his book always makes me sad. It’s so clear from what everyone said about him that he was a sweet, smart man with a loving wife, but he also suffered quite a bit and ended up somewhat embittered and depressed because of it. Honestly, having read that book I don’t know how Jack was as happy as he was. Mary comes off of as so narcissistic and misery inducing.

    • #7
  8. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Dotorimuk (View Comment):

    I started watching Benny’s TV show on You Tube. The Christmas episode in the department store that ends with a gunshot is a stunner.

    If you like podcasts, there’s one called This Day in Jack Benny that’s great. They release every Wednesday a Benny radio show from the corollary date in his original run, with a short intro to explain some of the more obscure references and gags. 

    • #8
  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Benny and Allen were brilliant. Their “feud” was hilarious. This next part is my favorite, Allen’s last show of the 1946 season.

    I really wish I could find footage of their boxing match, everyone who saw it said that it was just about the worst you could imagine. Their feud is all the better, in my opinion, because they were actually close friends and conspired to make it funny.

    Their writers got together before their joint appearances and wrote the gags together.

    Imagining what was going on onstage when the studio audience dissolves in hysterics just makes it funnier.

    • #9
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    When Allen’s stage crew starts to press Benny’s pants …

    Benny: You haven’t seen the end of me!

    Allen: It won’t be long now!

    • #10
  11. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Benny and Allen were brilliant. Their “feud” was hilarious. This next part is my favorite, Allen’s last show of the 1946 season.

    I really wish I could find footage of their boxing match, everyone who saw it said that it was just about the worst you could imagine. Their feud is all the better, in my opinion, because they were actually close friends and conspired to make it funny.

    Their writers got together before their joint appearances and wrote the gags together.

    Imagining what was going on onstage when the studio audience dissolves in hysterics just makes it funnier.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAe4YMKXojw

    This is a great example of that! I especially love it because you see that tendency that Burns describes in Benny to be so easily broken up and then fall to pieces, though he controls it somewhat here. 

    • #11
  12. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Benny and Allen were brilliant. Their “feud” was hilarious. This next part is my favorite, Allen’s last show of the 1946 season.

    I really wish I could find footage of their boxing match, everyone who saw it said that it was just about the worst you could imagine. Their feud is all the better, in my opinion, because they were actually close friends and conspired to make it funny.

    Benny’s description of Allen in his book always makes me sad. It’s so clear from what everyone said about him that he was a sweet, smart man with a loving wife, but he also suffered quite a bit and ended up somewhat embittered and depressed because of it. Honestly, having read that book I don’t know how Jack was as happy as he was. Mary comes off of as so narcissistic and misery inducing.

    Sorry, just realized how hard that picture is to read. He wrote:

    “And I admired Allen-for his generous nature as a person and for his sharp and cutting wit as a comedian. His marriage to Portland Hoffa, a soft-spoken and lovely lady, was one of the great romances of show business. In vaudeville, Allen was one of the smartest acts of that time. He was always miles ahead of the other performers. He was a genuine satirist. When we were together we had wonderful evenings sitting around and drinking coffee and reminiscing about our misadventures in Vaudeville and remembering some of the weird acts of that period. But when you got him off vaudeville, Allen became somebody else, a bitter and frustrated and unhappy man.

    I couldn’t understand him. He couldn’t understand me. I couldn’t figure out why he was so unhappy about life. He felt like the world was some kind of a miserable trap. Here was a man who was happily married to a fine woman and who had achieved success in radio and who was able to say what he wanted to millions of listeners and who commanded the respect of great humorists like James Thurber and Robert Benchley. Here was an  educated and intelligent man had read many books and who seemed to understand what the world was all about. What was wrong? I didn’t know what he wanted or expected out of life and why he was so basically disgruntled about living. He was a religious, God-fearing man and he lived a good, honest, clean life. I couldn’t understand him.”

    I would guess it was just fundamentally different outlooks on life and personalities.

    • #12
  13. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Thanks, good post.

     

     = = = = = = =  =

    Suggested edits (use rot13.com to decode)

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    • #13
  14. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    . Honestly, having read that book I don’t know how Jack was as happy as he was. Mary comes off of as so narcissistic and misery inducing.

    Sorry, just realized how hard that picture is to read. He wrote:

    “And I admired Allen-for his generous nature as a person and for his sharp and cutting wit as a comedian. His marriage to Portland Hoffa, a soft-spoken and lovely lady, was one of the great romances of show business. In vaudeville, Allen was one of the smartest acts of that time. He was always miles ahead of the other performers. He was a genuine satirist. When we were together we had wonderful evenings sitting around and drinking coffee and reminiscing about our misadventures in Vaudeville and remembering some of the weird acts of that period. But when you got him off vaudeville, Allen became somebody else, a bitter and frustrated and unhappy man.

    I couldn’t understand him. He couldn’t understand me. I couldn’t figure out why he’s so unhappy about life. He felt like the world was some kind of a miserable trap. Here was a man who was happily married to a fine woman and who had achieved success in radio and who was able to say what he wanted to millions of listeners and who commanded the respect of great humorists like James Thurber and Robert Benchley. Here was an educated and intelligent man had read many books and who seemed to understand what the world was all about. What was wrong? I didn’t know what he wanted or expected out of life and why he was so basically disgruntled about living. He was a religious, God-fearing man and he lived a good, honest, clean life. I couldn’t understand him.”

    I would guess it was just fundamentally different outlooks on life and personalities.

    George Burns, in one of his books, also goes into pretty good detail about the last year of Benny’s life. He seems to have harbored some signifiant guilt for minimizing his friend’s frequent pain (because doctors could never find a cause), and especially for accusing him, somewhat jokingly, about not caring about Burns’ own health and hanging up on him the day before he had the stroke that ended his preforming career in Dallas. For people that brought so much joy, that entire vaudeville generation seemed to attract tragedy; Allen and his early death/years of heart troubles, George losing Gracie, Jack’s pancreatic cancer and the troubles that his marriage caused at the end of his life, Al Jolson’s mess of a personal and family life, Eddie Cantor’s wife and a daughter predeceasing him, etc. 

    • #14
  15. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Both of Allen’s books, Much Ado About Me and Treadmill to Oblivion are in the public domain and available for download. I would also highly recommend Sunday Nights at Seven, Jack’s unfinished autobiography that was augmented and published by his daughter, Joan.

    Fred was a workaholic who oversaw the writing of everything he did and sweated out the details to the last piece of punctuation. And his health suffered for it. If he had one failure in broadcasting it was his inability to gauge how much laughter a joke would get and often his shows would run long and be cut off abruptly. This led to a protracted war with network executives.

    ”There is a vice-president of NBC,” he said, “whose sole job is to cut off programs at the end. When he cuts off enough to total two weeks he’s allowed to take a vacation.” NBC cut him off, or in the terminology of the time, faded him. It made national headlines. J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency representing Allen’s sponsor, demanded the :35 of dead-air be prorated back to them. 

    In the following weeks, in a show of solidarity, Bob Hope and Red Skelton were faded for joking about it. Finally, under a barrage of criticism, NBC threw in the towel. But it was speculated at the time that the network’s heavy handedness helped CBS in their talent raids of the late ‘40s. 

    In sports they often talk about a “coaching tree.” If there’s an American comedy tree, the folks like Allen and Benny who populated vaudeville and then radio may not be the roots, but they are most certainly the trunk – thick and sturdy. Unfortunately the folks in the upper branches today have no idea how they got to the heights they did.

     

    • #15
  16. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Both of Allen’s books, Much Ado About Me and Treadmill to Oblivion are in the public domain and available for download. I would also highly recommend Sunday Nights at Seven, Jack’s unfinished autobiography that was augmented and published by his daughter, Joan.

    Fred was a workaholic who oversaw the writing of everything he did and sweated out the details to the last piece of punctuation. And his health suffered for it. If he had one failure in broadcasting it was his inability to gauge how much laughter a joke would get and often his shows would run long and be cut off abruptly. This led to a protracted war with network executives.

    ”There is a vice-president of NBC,” he said, “whose sole job is to cut off programs at the end. When he cuts off enough to total two weeks he’s allowed to take a vacation.” NBC cut him off, or in the terminology of the time, faded him. It made national headlines. J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency representing Allen’s sponsor, demanded the :35 of dead-air be prorated back to them.

    In the following weeks, in a show of solidarity, Bob Hope and Red Skelton were faded for joking about it. Finally, under a barrage of criticism, NBC threw in the towel. But it was speculated at the time that the network’s heavy handedness helped CBS in their talent raids of the late ‘40s.

    In sports they often talk about a “coaching tree.” If there’s an American comedy tree, the folks like Allen and Benny who populated vaudeville and then radio may not be the roots, but they are most certainly the trunk – thick and sturdy. Unfortunately the folks in the upper branches today have no idea how they got to the heights they did.

     

    I second the recommendation of Sunday Nights at Seven, it’s more deftly written and has more substance than most ‘Hollywood books’, although it left me a bit morose for a few days. Benny comes across as a gentle, intelligent, talented man and supremely loving friend, husband, and father, but also a man who endured a lot of loneliness in the last years of his life and was married to a deeply flawed woman who inflicted her own scars on him and his relationship with his daughter, however much he wanted to pretend that she was perfect. Allen certainly did no favors for his health with his life style and temperament, but I would guess that an early upbringing in less than ideal circumstances, especially the few years when he was under the care of his alcoholic father, probably through malnutrition contributed to his poor health. It is disappointing how few contemporary comedians have appreciation for this generation, but I have been gratified to hear Conan O’Brien, and to a greater extent Gilbert Gottfried, talk about them on their respective podcasts (especially Benny).

    • #16
  17. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    KirkianWanderer: Readers of a certain age will probably have at least some memory of Benny, who dominated radio and television from the ‘30s almost until his death in 1974. My mother absolutely and completely despises him, and threatens homicide if I listen to his ‘40s broadcasts in the car, so he played no great role in my early life.

    How is it even *possible* to despise Jack Benny?

     

    In college we watched reruns of The Jack Benny Show and George and Gracie every night on CBN.

    Find any episode of The Jack Benny show with Bob Hope as a guest.  Bob was always trying (and usually succeeding) to break Jack up.

     

     

    • #17
  18. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: Readers of a certain age will probably have at least some memory of Benny, who dominated radio and television from the ‘30s almost until his death in 1974. My mother absolutely and completely despises him, and threatens homicide if I listen to his ‘40s broadcasts in the car, so he played no great role in my early life.

    How is it even *possible* to despise Jack Benny?

     

    In college we watched reruns of The Jack Benny Show and George and Gracie every night on CBN.

    Find any episode of The Jack Benny show with Bob Hope as a guest. Bob was always trying (and usually succeeding) to break Jack up.

    I don’t know! My parents are also much more of the age (mid-60s) than I am for appreciating him, so I feel like the weirdo in the situation (to be fair, I normally am). That reminded me of this (relevant part starts around 5:15); Johnny Carson brought along some outtakes from Jack’s final special (though of course they didn’t know it at the time) with himself and Bob Hope which are incredibly funny. It’s also sweet to see how much Jack clearly adores them both. 

     

    • #18
  19. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Both of Allen’s books, Much Ado About Me and Treadmill to Oblivion are in the public domain and available for download. I would also highly recommend Sunday Nights at Seven, Jack’s unfinished autobiography that was augmented and published by his daughter, Joan.

    Fred was a workaholic who oversaw the writing of everything he did and sweated out the details to the last piece of punctuation. And his health suffered for it. If he had one failure in broadcasting it was his inability to gauge how much laughter a joke would get and often his shows would run long and be cut off abruptly. This led to a protracted war with network executives.

    ”There is a vice-president of NBC,” he said, “whose sole job is to cut off programs at the end. When he cuts off enough to total two weeks he’s allowed to take a vacation.” NBC cut him off, or in the terminology of the time, faded him. It made national headlines. J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency representing Allen’s sponsor, demanded the :35 of dead-air be prorated back to them.

    In the following weeks, in a show of solidarity, Bob Hope and Red Skelton were faded for joking about it. Finally, under a barrage of criticism, NBC threw in the towel. But it was speculated at the time that the network’s heavy handedness helped CBS in their talent raids of the late ‘40s.

    In sports they often talk about a “coaching tree.” If there’s an American comedy tree, the folks like Allen and Benny who populated vaudeville and then radio may not be the roots, but they are most certainly the trunk – thick and sturdy. Unfortunately the folks in the upper branches today have no idea how they got to the heights they did.

     

    Not many of them can bring the funny the way the vaudevillians could. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy,  W. C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle: all of them had developed their timing in front of live audiences in theaters all over the country. Both film and radio had talent on which to draw as they started up.

    • #19
  20. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Both of Allen’s books, Much Ado About Me and Treadmill to Oblivion are in the public domain and available for download. I would also highly recommend Sunday Nights at Seven, Jack’s unfinished autobiography that was augmented and published by his daughter, Joan.

    Fred was a workaholic who oversaw the writing of everything he did and sweated out the details to the last piece of punctuation. And his health suffered for it. If he had one failure in broadcasting it was his inability to gauge how much laughter a joke would get and often his shows would run long and be cut off abruptly. This led to a protracted war with network executives.

    ”There is a vice-president of NBC,” he said, “whose sole job is to cut off programs at the end. When he cuts off enough to total two weeks he’s allowed to take a vacation.” NBC cut him off, or in the terminology of the time, faded him. It made national headlines. J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency representing Allen’s sponsor, demanded the :35 of dead-air be prorated back to them.

    In the following weeks, in a show of solidarity, Bob Hope and Red Skelton were faded for joking about it. Finally, under a barrage of criticism, NBC threw in the towel. But it was speculated at the time that the network’s heavy handedness helped CBS in their talent raids of the late ‘40s.

    In sports they often talk about a “coaching tree.” If there’s an American comedy tree, the folks like Allen and Benny who populated vaudeville and then radio may not be the roots, but they are most certainly the trunk – thick and sturdy. Unfortunately the folks in the upper branches today have no idea how they got to the heights they did.

    Not many of them can bring the funny the way the vaudevillians could. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle: all of them had developed their timing in front of live audiences in theaters all over the country. Both film and radio had talent on which to draw as they started up.

    I always feel a little guilty because I could never find Bob Hope (not listed here, but normally lumped in with the vaudeville set) funny. Something about his style, I guess, just failed to jive with my sense of humor, and while I could appreciate him sometimes in combination with others overall he leaves me cold. Gilbert Gottfried has a running joke about him on his excellent podcast, and Dolores’ revenge in the form of a very undignified Jack Frost skit in his dotage. If Bob messed around as much as rumor had it, I can’t say I blame her.

    • #20
  21. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Both of Allen’s books, Much Ado About Me and Treadmill to Oblivion are in the public domain and available for download. I would also highly recommend Sunday Nights at Seven, Jack’s unfinished autobiography that was augmented and published by his daughter, Joan.

    Fred was a workaholic who oversaw the writing of everything he did and sweated out the details to the last piece of punctuation. And his health suffered for it. If he had one failure in broadcasting it was his inability to gauge how much laughter a joke would get and often his shows would run long and be cut off abruptly. This led to a protracted war with network executives.

    ”There is a vice-president of NBC,” he said, “whose sole job is to cut off programs at the end. When he cuts off enough to total two weeks he’s allowed to take a vacation.” NBC cut him off, or in the terminology of the time, faded him. It made national headlines. J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency representing Allen’s sponsor, demanded the :35 of dead-air be prorated back to them.

    In the following weeks, in a show of solidarity, Bob Hope and Red Skelton were faded for joking about it. Finally, under a barrage of criticism, NBC threw in the towel. But it was speculated at the time that the network’s heavy handedness helped CBS in their talent raids of the late ‘40s.

    In sports they often talk about a “coaching tree.” If there’s an American comedy tree, the folks like Allen and Benny who populated vaudeville and then radio may not be the roots, but they are most certainly the trunk – thick and sturdy. Unfortunately the folks in the upper branches today have no idea how they got to the heights they did.

    Not many of them can bring the funny the way the vaudevillians could. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle: all of them had developed their timing in front of live audiences in theaters all over the country. Both film and radio had talent on which to draw as they started up.

    I always feel a little guilty because I could never find Bob Hope (not listed here, but normally lumped in with the vaudeville set) funny. Something about his style, I guess, just failed to jive with my sense of humor, and while I could appreciate him sometimes in combination with others overall he leaves me cold. Gilbert Gottfried has a running joke about him on his excellent podcast, and Dolores’ revenge in the form of a very undignified Jack Frost skit in his dotage. If Bob messed around as much as rumor had it, I can’t say I blame her.

    Hope did a lot of topical humor. We had an album of his USO shows in Vietnam when I was growing up. Some of the military humor and a lot of the references to places in the country went over my head, but it was dropping the troops right and left.

    • #21
  22. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    If Bob Hope had done nothing else, at least he gave us this:

    • #22
  23. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Both of Allen’s books, Much Ado About Me and Treadmill to Oblivion are in the public domain and available for download. I would also highly recommend Sunday Nights at Seven, Jack’s unfinished autobiography that was augmented and published by his daughter, Joan.

    Fred was a workaholic who oversaw the writing of everything he did and sweated out the details to the last piece of punctuation. And his health suffered for it. If he had one failure in broadcasting it was his inability to gauge how much laughter a joke would get and often his shows would run long and be cut off abruptly. This led to a protracted war with network executives.

    ”There is a vice-president of NBC,” he said, “whose sole job is to cut off programs at the end. When he cuts off enough to total two weeks he’s allowed to take a vacation.” NBC cut him off, or in the terminology of the time, faded him. It made national headlines. J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency representing Allen’s sponsor, demanded the :35 of dead-air be prorated back to them.

    In the following weeks, in a show of solidarity, Bob Hope and Red Skelton were faded for joking about it. Finally, under a barrage of criticism, NBC threw in the towel. 

    I always feel a little guilty because I could never find Bob Hope (not listed here, but normally lumped in with the vaudeville set) funny. Something about his style, I guess, just failed to jive with my sense of humor, and while I could appreciate him sometimes in combination with others overall he leaves me cold. Gilbert Gottfried has a running joke about him on his excellent podcast, and Dolores’ revenge in the form of a very undignified Jack Frost skit in his dotage. If Bob messed around as much as rumor had it, I can’t say I blame her.

    Hope did a lot of topical humor. We had an album of his USO shows in Vietnam when I was growing up. Some of the military humor and a lot of the references to places in the country went over my head, but it was dropping the troops right and left.

    Some of the problem probably was that, his humor is more dated than the others. He also just seemed less snappy and original, and more reliant on writers. Apparently he used to call his writers at all hours of the night, sometimes to demand ‘topical’ material for stuff that was 15 or 20 years old. His preferred method of seduction, on the USO tours, seems to have been telling the girls that he would leave them in whatever God forsaken war zone they were preforming in if they didn’t give into his demands. 

    • #23
  24. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Great post – Thanks!

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Suggested edits (use rot13.com to decode)

    punatr
    Znffnpuhfrrgf
    gb
    Znffnpuhfrggf

    She’s from Znffnpuhfrrgf, Mark. She can spell it anyway she wants to.

    • #25
  26. Jon1979 Lincoln
    Jon1979
    @Jon1979

    Dotorimuk (View Comment):

    I started watching Benny’s TV show on You Tube. The Christmas episode in the department store that ends with a gunshot is a stunner.

    Benny did some dark visual gags on TV that would probably give some of the under 40-somethings in 2020 the vapors — the opening of this 1958 live episode was a parody of the opening of the “Shower of Stars” specials that Jack was a semi-regular part of in the 50s. The punchline gag of the bit then gets a callback later in the show….

    • #26
  27. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    EJHill (View Comment):
    Fred was a workaholic who oversaw the writing of everything he did and sweated out the details to the last piece of punctuation. And his health suffered for it. If he had one failure in broadcasting it was his inability to gauge how much laughter a joke would get and often his shows would run long and be cut off abruptly.

    For all his devoted attention, though, he let a lot of clinkers slip through the net. And he knew it.

    It might have been due to the quantity of gags on an Allen show vs. a Benny show. Jack’s show was character driven; Allen’s Alley was archetype driven. Yes, everyone on the Benny show had a particular trait (fat, vain, dumb, sarcastic, resigned) but they rose above the specific attribute and interacted like friends. Allen’s Alley was a parade of accents for an audience that had pre-formed assumptions, and leaned into the bits. And that’s fine! As we’ve discussed before, that was also what made “Green Acres” work. But the set-up / punchline rhythm was more mannered than the Benny show, and no one really played off Allen in the same way they pricked and plucked at Jack.

    The news-of-the-week feature Allen ran was loaded with stinkers. When a line failed, and he’d joke about it, it felt like a tonal shift from the generally-assumed premise that this was all hilarious and brilliant. It felt a bit sweaty. When they laid a big egg on the Benny show, they seemed far more relaxed and amused by the diversion; they played with it like a cat with a dead mouse before batting it away and sauntering on with the show.  Maybe it’s me; maybe I’m reading a lot into it. But. There’s an assumed confidence in the Benny shows that Allen lacked.

     Jack was a settled man. Fred seemed simultaneously unnerved by the idea that he was better than this, and that he wasn’t all they said he was. Getting bounced around from show to show and network to network will do that to a man, perhaps.

    • #27
  28. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    Benny comes across as a gentle, intelligent, talented man and supremely loving friend, husband, and father,

    I think that’s one of the reasons I love his work. He played a peevish, idle, vain man with limited self-awareness you couldn’t dislike – partly because he was as harmless as a housefly, but also because there was some ineffable quality he brought to the role that kept him from being the sum of his flaws.  

    It’s interesting that we only see him through the radio shows, and don’t factor in the movies. You can’t get a clear read on the radio shows without understanding the big-screen side of his public persona.  To make it even more modern, the radio shows refer to the movies, since the Jack Benny of the Radio is the Jack Benny of the Movies – but even then, the movie career is seen as a reflection of Jack’s vanity. I don’t know how many gags they wrung out of his colossal misfire “The Horn Blows at Midnight.”

    When he moved to TV, the radio shows addressed the new medium with the same tone, the same backstage before-the-show setups, the same Benny spirit of sublime, offhand confidence. It’s quite the body of work: in the majority of his shows, he plays a character, who now and then plays a different character who does not exist in the world where there is a Jack Benny everyone knows. For all that, everyone felt they knew him, and liked him – and they were probably right.

    • #28
  29. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    I don’t know how many gags they wrung out of his colossal misfire “The Horn Blows at Midnight.”

    Every one of those gags was well deserved.  Saw that movie on TMC some years back.  Wow, that was a stinker.

     

    • #29
  30. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    I don’t know how many gags they wrung out of his colossal misfire “The Horn Blows at Midnight.”

    Every one of those gags was well deserved. Saw that movie on TMC some years back. Wow, that was a stinker.

     

    On the other hand, To Be or Not to Be, the movie he made with Carol Lombard, is on the Criterion Chanel and absolutely deserves that honor. In his memoir he also named Love Thy Neighbor as his favorite of the Benny-Allen pictures, and I think it’s a charming watch for fans of either comedian or old movie buffs (although it’s very hard to find, I had to watch it on some shady Russian torrenting site because I refuse to pay $129 for a dvd).

    • #30